To Build a Fire

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"To Build a Fire"
Author Jack London
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Adventure, short story
Publication date 1902, 1908

"To Build a Fire" is a short story by American author Jack London. There are two versions of this story where one was published in 1902 and the other in 1908. The story that was written in 1908 has become an often anthologized classic while the 1902 story becomes a lesser known story. The 1908 version is about an unnamed protagonist who ventures out in the sub-zero tundra of the Yukon Territory, accompanied by his dog, to visit his friends. Though he was warned by an older man about the dangers of hiking alone, the protagonist ignores him. The man then underestimates the harsh weather conditions and slowly began to freeze to death. The man then tries to build a fire three different times, but all get put out. After his final attempt, he then freezes to death in the snow.

The 1902 version describes a similar situation but with a different plot. Through the structure and storyline are similar in both, in 1902 the weather is not as cold and horrendous, no dog follows the protagonist, the fire is not doused, and the man (named Tom Vincent) suffers only from permanent frostbite and survives to be a more melancholy but wiser person.

The 1908 "To Build a Fire" is an oft-cited example of the naturalist movement that portrays the conflict of man vs. nature. It also reflects what London learned in the Yukon Territory.[1]

Summary of 1908 story[edit]

On an extremely cold winter day (−75 °F or −59 °C), a man, who remains unnamed throughout the story, and his native wolf-dog go onto the Yukon Trail after being warned of the dangers of traveling alone in extreme weather conditions by an old man from Sulfur Creek. With nine hours of hiking ahead of him, the man is expecting to meet his associates ("the boys") at a camp in Henderson Creek by that evening. The man is accompanied only by his dog, whose instincts tell it that the weather is too cold for traveling. However, the weather does not deter the man, a relative newcomer to the Yukon, even though the water vapor in the man's exhaled breaths and the saliva from the tobacco he is chewing have frozen his mouth shut. It is here where London's use of symbolism of "heat (sun-fire-life) and cold (darkness-depression-death)" immediately creates a sense of impending doom.[2] As the man hikes along a creek, he takes care to avoid pockets of unfrozen water hidden beneath thin layers of ice. He stops and builds a fire to thaw out so he can eat his lunch, and soon after continues hiking. Shortly thereafter he breaks through the ice and soaks his feet and lower legs.

More angry over the accident than concerned for his safety, the man builds a fire under a tree to dry his clothes as sensation begins to fade from his extremities. He pulls twigs from the nearby underbrush to feed the fire, but the resulting vibrations eventually cause the snow on the tree's loaded boughs to tumble down, extinguishing the flames and frightening the man for the first time. He gathers material for a new fire and lights it with great difficulty, burning himself with his matches in the process. But then he accidentally pokes everything apart and extinguishes the incipient flame while trying to remove a piece of moss. He seizes hold of the dog, planning to kill it and use the fresh carcass for warmth; however, he finds that he can neither draw his knife nor strangle the animal with his frozen hands. In a final desperate attempt to warm himself up, the man tries to run along the trail but repeatedly stumbles and falls. Finally understanding the truth of the wise man's warnings about the cold, the man succumbs to hypothermia and sleeps his way into death, imagining himself to be with "the boys" as they find his body the next day.

The dog does not understand the situation at first, but after it catches the smell of death, it howls for a while and then trots off toward the camp, where it knows it can get food and fire.[3]


Man vs. Nature is one of the themes present in this short story. Despite being warned by an older man, the protagonist decides to set out and battle the brutal cold temperatures to get across the Yukon Territory. It is a battle of life and death for him and it becomes clear how that the fire will determine whether he will live or perish in the tundra.

Another theme that appears in the story is the Man's human sense of judgment vs. the dog's animal instincts. Throughout the story, the author hints that the dog has more knowledge of survival than the man. A few examples are when the man first builds his fire, the dog wanted to wait by it to keep warm while the man wanted to keep moving forward, The dog reluctantly follows the man across a frozen river where the dog is seen carefully making its way through the ice while the man is just walking through.

Desperation is present throughout the majority of the story. It begins to become prevalent soon after the man falls into a frozen over river. Soon after, scrambles to build a fire to save himself from the cold, and is too busy worrying about his health to notice the flaw of building a fire underneath a tree which had collected an enormous amount of snow. After the first fire is put out, the desperation of survival becomes more defined as he seemingly will do anything to survive, including attempting to kill his dog for warmth, as well as using all his matches at once as a final attempt to light his last fire. His desperation of survival and his fear of dying causes his final demise as he freezes to death in the end of the story.[4]

1902 version[edit]

The earlier version was first published in The Youth's Companion on May 29, 1902. It differs in some details, though the general structure and storyline are similar; the primary differences are as follows: in the first version it is not as cold, there is no dog, the fire is not doused, and the man (named Tom Vincent) suffers some permanent frostbite damage but survives, sadder but wiser.[5]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "To Build a Fire" Study Guide at What So Proudly We Hail Curriculum. Retrieved 22 February 2012.
  2. ^ "To Build a Fire". Retrieved 5 April 2017. 
  3. ^ London, Jack (August 1908). "To Build a Fire". The Century Magazine. 76.  Full text of the famous second version, published for an adult audience.
  4. ^ "To Build a Fire". Retrieved 5 April 2017. 
  5. ^
    • London, Jack (May 29, 1902). "To Build a Fire". The Youth's Companion. 
    • London, Jack (May 29, 1902). "To Build a Fire". Youth's Companion.  Full text of the first, more juvenile version.
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Internet Movie Database
  9. ^ Internet Movie Database
  10. ^ Official Animation short film Website

External links[edit]